School's Modular Moves Forward

School's Modular Moves Forward

Herndon Elementary's new unit will be home to two grade levels, 180 students.

Brisk walks in the rain and ice to get to class, organized bathroom breaks consuming more than a half hour a day of class time and awkwardly-designed classroom structures may soon be nuisances of the past for students and teachers at Herndon Elementary School.

With a conditional recommendation made by the Herndon Planning Commission last week and on-going reviews of a site plan, the school may be approved to move ahead with the construction of a "modular add-on" of 10 classrooms by the middle of March.

The modular add-on will be replacing the nine temporary trailer classrooms that have served as permanent rooms for third graders and temporary learning spaces for teachers and tutors over the course of the last six years and more. It will be a single indoor unit, with heated interior passageways between the classrooms and functioning student and faculty bathrooms with running water, according to Carolyn Gannaway, principal of Herndon Elementary School. If approved, it is scheduled to be operational by the first day of school in the fall of this year.

"The modular [add-on] is such an upgrade from what we have right now," said Gannaway. "It's like having a whole new wing on the school."

For Melissa Jonas, with a son currently in third grade and a daughter entering Herndon Elementary School next year, the add-on is just what the school needs.

"It's a major improvement, the fact that the children can have a better learning environment … will make their experience so much better," Jonas said. "Permanent renovations are slow and painful, and even in the most reputable schools they can take a toll on the education quality."

"This is good because it will be a fix for a current problem until we can get something more permanent in there."

EXPECTED TO COST Fairfax County Public Schools a little more than $2 million, the modular add-on, if approved, will be the new home for the school's fifth- and sixth-grade students until at least 2016, according to Gannaway. That year, Herndon Elementary School will be due for a full routine renovation by Fairfax County Public Schools, she said.

Because the unit is still technically a temporary structure, an added condition among the 16 set by the Planning Commission is that it be replaced by a permanent structure by 2020, according to town documents.

Gannaway said that while she doesn't foresee a problem with that condition, it's hard to predict the future so far in advance.

"It's a reasonable amount of time that we're being given, but we also have to take into consideration the fact that voters often decide on bonds," she said. "Managing the timelines that far in advance can be difficult."

The idea is not to put undue pressure on the school, but to make sure that students are not short-changed when it comes time for a permanent update, said Dave Swan, Planning Commission member.

"We were very serious about putting a date on when the county had to complete a permanent addition," Swan said. "These students are going to eventually need a permanent learning space … and it was our intention to make sure they get that."

THE NECESSITY for the add-on was not burgeoning school enrollment, as student numbers have hovered around 700 since McNair Elementary School was established in 2001, said Gannaway. The real reason for the building was because of an advancement of the education system and the need for additional learning spaces.

Programs like English as a Second Official Language, reading tutoring sessions and special education have progressively been worked into the fabric of Herndon Elementary School to meet needs and, in turn, consumed more physical space, Gannaway said.

"Over time there have been just so many new programs and developments in education," she said. "The more programs we have for our children, the more teaching space we needed to have."

And the trailers have been less than ideal for teaching the students. Aside from their often unsightly exterior appearance they do not contain bathrooms, causing teachers to have to schedule pre-arranged bathroom breaks for students that could take up to as much as 20 minutes of instructional time away for each one, according to Gannaway. That will all change with the bathrooms included in the new unit, she added.

If approved, the third-grade students who are currently located in a "quad" trailer, will be moved back into the building along with the additional learning spaces in the five other classrooms, while the fifth- and sixth-graders will be moved to the new unit.

The students who are set to occupy the new building are already excited, said nine-year Herndon Elementary School sixth-grade teacher Georgie Lowe.

"They kind of like the idea of being out on their own … they feel like the big men on campus," Lowe said. "It's like being in a whole separate wing of the school where they can do their own thing away from the younger kids."

THE CHANGE to the new modular add-on unit is one that is welcome, said Joe Francis, whose Herndon home on Dranesville Road backs up to the school's property.

By approving of the add-on "we're recognizing reality, you've seen the real estate market … Herndon's been growing significantly," said Francis. "This will be good because it will get all the students a good place to study before a new building can be approved."

While Francis is worried that the relocation of a softball field to a "secluded" area between the modular unit and homes might become a safety concern, he said that he has approved of the handling of the additions and that all parties have acted responsibly.

"From everything I've seen and heard, this sounds like a great idea and everyone is on board," said Herndon Mayor Steve DeBenedittis, who is scheduled to vote on the site plan for the add-on in March. "We'd like to see something solid there, but for right now this looks like it will be our best option."

The temporary nature of the add-on has concerned Herndon Vice Mayor Dennis Husch, but it hasn't been enough to sway him from supporting the plan, he said.

"None of us like the idea of a temporary building, but the kids need to get out of those trailers," he said. "I think it looks like it should fit the bill nicely for the time being."

Gannaway said that she understands the desire for a permanent structure, but has to work with the resources she has available at the moment. A renovation, if it were able to be initiated tomorrow, would cost the school an estimated $12 million and could take as long as two years to complete, she added.

"Do we all want to have brick and mortar? Absolutely," Gannaway said. "But we realize the reality that right now we can't have that."

"And if we can't have that, I think that with the modular [add-on], we're getting the next best thing."